This week local folks will converge on downtown Harlan for the Poke Sallet Festival. Like Jack’s beanstalk, which grew and grew from a single seed, Harlan County’s annual festival has grown enormously from a single “seed of an idea” planted back in 1955.
Back then, the late Drew Smith owned and operated Martins Fork Road Market and Garage. Drew’s wife ran a short order restaurant business in the same building located at the forks of the road right about where the Catrons Creek turnoff is today. Mrs. Smith cooked up a mess of poke one spring as was her custom and at the request of her husband. They invited some friends to join them in a meal which consisted of freshly picked spring green onions, cornbread in an iron skillet baked in the oven of a coal stove, hard boiled country fresh eggs, newly picked tender poke and a mason jar filled to the brim with cold buttermilk.
Being somewhat of a guru and an excellent storyteller, Drew enlightened his dinner guests regarding the history of the poke weed and its many virtues. First of all, he told them, poke is an indigenous mountain green dating back to the original inhabitants of this region — the Indians. They relied on poke greens and sassafras tea to tone up the body in spring after a long winter of sluggishness. Poke was medicinal. Drew said it was loaded with rich vitamins, minerals and riboflavin. He vowed that, although it had not cured, it had markedly relieved his arthritis. Mountaineers considered poke to be something like manna in the Bible. It was God-given, a food which was plentiful and didn’t have to be planted or tended.
As the dinner went on, Drew’s guests allowed that the eatin’ was mighty fine and they ought to get together next spring, serve the same meal, invite everybody in Harlan County and make a festival day out of it. Drew agreed and the following year, he did just that.
Next spring on the first weekend in June, the first Poke Sallet Festival was held at the shelter house at Stone Mountain State Park on Cranks Creek. In the early days of the festival, large crowds attended to eat the traditional meal, listen to local musicians, and hear speeches by local politicians. Later, it became traditional for the governor, or a senator, or a congressman to be the guest speaker.
At some point, the festival was moved from the shelter house to Pine Mountain Settlement School, then later to the courthouse lawn. After that, the festival blossomed into a four-day marathon with a variety of almost non-stop activities resembling a combination of a country fair and a carnival. Events include a beauty pageant, music concerts, a foot race, health fairs, food vendors, crafts, kiddy games, pet show, gospel singing, street dance, car show, and of course, the traditional poke dinner.
Poke Sallet Pappy Drew Smith would be surprised that the festival has been ongoing and at the same time, he wouldn’t recognize it. There is one thing that hasn’t changed. A mess of poke is still a powerful spring tonic guaranteed to rid the body of winter’s sluggishness. That is putting it politely.
Gather up the family and head downtown to enjoy this year’s festival. A full schedule of events can be found at www.harlanfestivals.com/poke_sallet.